The White Queen? The White Company more like

As BBC1's gloriously silly and totally unhistorical drama The White Queen airs, Ben Dowell asks does history have to be accurate?

I’d just seen the Time Traveller’s Guide to Elizabethan England and I was surprised at what I saw next.


In the beautifully made, thoughtful and quite riveting BBC2 series, historian Ian Mortimer reminded us that the world of Shakespeare was a pretty grim one. If you were poor, life was pretty cruddy and short and if you were rich, well, it wasn’t much better. Courtly intrigue in a fearful spy-ridden state could see your head lopped off quicker than you could say “Gadzooks, sirrah!”

And the mess. My God. The mess and the stench, the rivers overflowing with crap (actual, real life proper crap), the constant threat of illness and the fact that even a journey like the one Shakespeare took many times back to Stratford was perilous given the number of cutthroats there were lining the highways. Mortimer sure put paid to any hey nonny nonny idea you may have about Good Queen Bess, lovers and their lasses and Merry months of May. And bodkins.

But what’s this? Next up on my TV viewing list is The White Queen, BBC1’s new Sunday night costume romp adapted from the novels of Philippa Gregory and if you believe what you saw there, well, 130 years earlier it was all very different.

It was 1464 and Rebecca Ferguson’s Lady Elizabeth was living in what looked like a modern loft apartment, rising out of bed like she was in a Timotei advert. Her hair was glossy and shiny and beautifully brushed, her teeth whiter than the beautiful linen which she sported, her breasts quivering like a cool milk jelly…and. Well, you get the picture.

It was all perfectly mown lawns, perfect floors, and even candles in daytime giving each scene and room that perfect look. Never mind the White Queen, this was the White Company Queen, all ready for its Photoshoot for the Sunday Times Style magazine. But did it matter?

I doubt anyone switching the White Queen on was keen on verisimilitude. If they were they would probably have more of a problem with the way the enormously complicated alliances and manoeuvrings of the War of the Roses was given a soapy, melodramatic feel.

“We are Lancastrians who stood against him,” says Lady Elizabeth’s brother as she takes a turn in the shrubbery with Max Irons’ dashingly handsome Edward IV. “He will want payment if he has not taken it already. He has bedded every woman in his court… He could be forcing her as we speak.”

“I have to have you,” pants randy Eddy as the content of his, er, pants appeared to be getting the better of him. “And if you will not be my mistress you have to marry me.”

But ever since the Tudors gave us a dashing, and staggeringly thin Henry VIII in Jonathan Rhys Meyers, we have long got used to the soft focus beauty of TV medieval hokum; and judged against the former series, The White Queen quickly begins to resemble a four-hour Geoffrey Elton lecture.

Essentially, what the White Queen gave us was something that purported to be true and featured real historical people but was actually no more factually-based than Game of Thrones. In fact at moments they looked very similar (it certainly didn’t look like England, because it wasn’t England – it was shot in Belgium, costing a rather whopping £25m).

And is any of this a bad thing? No, not really. Because ultimately the test of a good TV programme is whether you enjoy it, look forward to it and sit down to watch it. And I am afraid I – guiltily – did like it and will be going back. There is plenty of other great informative telly to choose from but sometimes you just want to kick back and veg out. And with figures of more than 5.3 million according to the overnight ratings this is the kind of thing that people like to veg out to on a Sunday night. Even if it is all thoroughly, joyously, fantastically silly.

You can pre-order your copy of The White Queen here


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